The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering was originally published in 1975. That was the year I took my first course in programming – FORTRAN, at Memphis State University. Mythical Man-Month has been a must read for every professional involved in delivering value since it was published. The core themes in the book, which include Brook’s Law (adding people to a late project just makes it later – more in a future installment), are just as important today as they were when they were published because they still true for all types of software development and maintenance.   The Mythical Man-Month, I think on reflection you will agree, is still important because we are still trying to come to grips with most if not all of the concepts that Brooks exposed.

Here is the game plan for the Re-Read. We will be reading from Anniversary Edition of the Mythical Man-Month (Addison Wesley 1995). My copy is the 14th printing from 2014. Part of this re-read will actually be a first read for me. I believe I originally read Man-Month in the early 1980’s, and this edition has a new preface and four new chapters. My intent during the re-read is to cover two essays/chapters per week so the re-read takes ten weeks “ish.”  Today will be the exception to the rule. We will tackle the first essay, The Tar Pit (I already used the ideas in the essay to make a point in the essay on Scrum of Scrum membership).

The original preface provides background for Brooks’ perspective. Brooks came to his conclusions based on a history as a hardware architect then as the manager of the OS/360 project (IBM’s highly successful mainframe operating system). In the preface Brooks telegraphs one of his central theorems – large projects are different than small projects. It took a few years and the Agile Manifesto (2001) to recognize this fact and begin to act on it.

The anniversary edition includes a new preface in addition to the original. There were two notes in the new preface that caused me pause. The first was the observation by Brooks was that few of the central thoughts in the book had been critiqued, proven, and disproven by research and experience. I would like your feedback as we review the essays. I will explicitly point those points out during the re-read and if miss any skip ahead to Chapter 18 to keep me honest. The second point, based on my interest in the publishing industry,  from the new preface was that Brooks was able to publicly thank Addison Wesley staff that he found instrumental when preparing the first edition. The publishing world has changed. The question I pose to the Software Process and Measurement Cast blog readers is has our profession changed as much?

Chapter 1: The Tar Pit

In the Tar Pit Brooks sets the context for the system programming as a craft that is more than just the lone coder sitting in his or her office creating a stand alone app but rather a member of a team building large scale systems. The Tar Pit describes why the complexity and level of effort is different and then exposes the joy and woes of the profession.

The first takeaway from the Tar Pit is that as the product of a piece of work progresses from the delivery of a single program to programming product or system then to a programming systems product, the complexity of managing and understanding the work increases. As size and complexity increase so do tasks and activities to ensure the product works together. Brook suggests that the difference between level of effort between the creation of stand-alone program and a systems product is 9 times! The complexity of coordinating all of these additional tasks and activities while solving complex business problems impacts our ability to deliver on-time, on-budget and on-scope. At times, it also impact our ability to deliver WOW.

The second takeaway are the joys of programming.  Joys motivate programmers to put forth the effort needed to deliver value while trying to navigate the tar pit.  Brooks points out that the rewards of programming are at least four fold:

  1. The joy of making things.
  2. The joy of making things that are useful to others.
  3. The joy of problem solving.
  4. The joy of learning.

These joys are offset by several woes.  These woes are the part of the tar pit that make programming hard.

  1. Expectation of perfection. Unless the code is correct and solves the requirements, it is wrong. There is little to no gray area.
  2. Dependence on others. Others set your objectives, provide resources and often control the source of information. This often leads to the tension caused when individual or teams have the responsibility to deliver without commensurate authority. Agile principles, when applied to teams, are a start to addressing these woes.
  3. Finding the bugs in the big picture.  Designing the big picture is significantly more fun than the tedious effort required to find bugs.
  4. Dead on arrival projects.  Long running projects are occasionally dead on arrival or the market has changed and what has been delivered is not what is needed.

In 1975 when this essay was published Agile was not a word one would attach to building applications or systems. However I think we can see the seeds of the Agile revolution in this essay.